Before fracturing his left finger in mid-January, Anthony Davis was playing best basketball of his career, and it wasn’t particularly close.
He averaged a ridiculous 33.2 points, 15.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.0 steals, and 2.1 blocks on 51.5 percent shooting in the 16 games leading up to the injury he suffered against the Portland Trail Blazers on January 18, thrusting himself into the MVP discussion despite the New Orleans Pelicans’ struggles to keep pace in a loaded Western Conference.
Davis requested a trade 10 days later, making it easy to forget just how historically dominant he’d been over the previous month of the regular season. Playing in a football-first market like New Orleans, for a team without realistic hopes of championship contention, long made it far easier to overlook Davis than should have been the case.
His trade demand did the same to his superlative play leading up to his injury, reducing Davis to merely a six-time All-Star and three-time First Team All-NBA honoree, rather than the young player finally entering his prime who seemed increasingly poised to assume the mantle as the league’s best overall player.
The likelihood Davis is rewarded with that distinction now that he’s finally a member of the Los Angeles Lakers is lower than it would have been if he’d remained with the Pelicans. No NBA shadow looms larger than that of LeBron James, both in terms of his overarching influence on his team and the media spotlight.
No matter how good Davis is during his debut campaign with the Lakers, it almost seems impossible he’d receive more credit than a player who many consider the greatest of all time for their team’s success. Davis is in Los Angeles because of James’ presence more than anything else, and Los Angeles’ plans to play the latter at point guard ensures he’ll wield as much offensive control as any other player in the league.
But it’s wrong to suggest that just because James is the Lakers’ undisputed on- and off-court leader that Davis must take a backseat. He’s always been most comfortable playing a more dependent role than autonomous one.
Davis has never been assisted on fewer than 65.9 percent of his baskets, a career-low established last season. Of the 35 times over the last three years a player has averaged more than 25.0 points per game, only Karl-Anthony Towns’ 2016-17 season, when he had help on 64.2 percent of his scores, comes close to reaching Davis’ most self-sufficient campaign in terms of assisted baskets, per NBA.com/stats.
There’s an argument to be made that Davis is the most skilled big man in the NBA. He’s a more effective ball handler than Towns, a more dynamic finisher than Nikola Jokic, and a more reliable shooter than Joel Embiid.
Even so, when it comes to his viability as a primary offensive option, it’s fair to say Davis lags behind each of those luminaries due to his relative lack of three-point proficiency, playmaking comfort, and back-to-basket prowess, respectively.
Last season, Davis was assisted on 68.1 percent of his makes with Jrue Holiday on the floor, a ratio that fell to 56.1 percent with the Pelicans’ guard on the bench, per NBA.com/stats. Unsurprisingly, he was also significantly less efficient playing without Holiday, with several-point dips in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage coupled with a several-point rise in usage.
As versatile as Davis’ offensive game has become, it’s still abundantly clear he’s at his best playing next to a ball handler who doesn’t only find him easy scoring opportunities, but simply occupies attention of the defense on a consistent basis. It’s that reality that makes his pre-injury performance last season all the more impressive. Davis put up those mind-blowing numbers while being assisted on 58.9 percent of his makes, according to data compiled at NBA.com/stats, doing most of his damage with Holiday on the floor.
Just imagine, then, how many more dunks and layups an all-time passer like James will create for Davis, not to mention additional chances to attack one-on-one. Davis has his limits offensively, but beating slow-footed centers or too-small forwards in isolation situations with a spread floor certainly isn’t one of them.
Much has been made of the fact that James has never played with a co-star who’s a more seamless offensive fit for his game than Davis. Dwyane Wade was defended like a non-shooter from beyond the arc; Chris Bosh wasn’t on Davis’ otherworldly level of athleticism; Kyrie Irving was most comfortable with and wanted the ball in his hands; and Kevin Love wasn’t anything close to a vertical spacer.
It’s impossible to dream up a better ball-screen partner than Davis, and his abiding threat as a finisher around the rim in the half court and transition will open up passing lanes for James that haven’t been there before.
The same overarching sentiment applies vice versa, though, and perhaps in a manner that stands to be even more beneficial for Los Angeles. James is the Lakers’ most important offensive player, but it’s Davis whose numbers should improve most as the result of forming the franchise’s latest superstar tandem.
Frank Vogel’s decision to play James as his team’s point guard only increases the chances that assumption comes to fruition, too, as does Davis’ comparative youth. In his age-35 season, playing something close to full-time floor general alongside another perennial All-NBA selection in the thick of his prime, James should feel less inclined in 2019-20 than in any of the previous 16 seasons to shoulder a scoring burden that occasionally proves too heavy. Davis, accordingly, is primed to thrive.
Make no mistake: The Lakers are James’ team. His overall offensive impact will be unsurpassed, and they’ll certainly follow his lead emotionally. But as Los Angeles re-establishes itself as a championship contender, don’t be surprised if Davis receives nearly as many plaudits as his legendary teammate.
The best stretch of his career was cut short by injury last season, then quickly forgotten when he turned the league upside down by requesting a trade more than a full year removed from free agency.
Amidst the glitz and glamor of the Lakers, finally playing next to a truly elite playmaker, Davis should be better than ever.